Monday, July 22, 2013

Private Sector Versus Pirates?

Should low intensity threats warrant an expensive high intensity response?   Perhaps the private sector can offer flexible and less expensive solutions than nation-states.

Last week, Doublethink magazine interviewed John-Clark Levin the author of Private Anti-Piracy Navies: How Warships for Hire are Changing Maritime Security.  Levin argues that small scale privately run outfits can offer better security at a lower price than national navies.

Piracy, especially in the Indian Ocean, has escaped the front page, but remains a threat to shipping and leisure cruising.  Other reports indicate that threats in other parts of the world have outstripped the danger lurking in the waters off of Somalia.  While 851 suffered attack off the coast of that quasi-country this year, nearly a thousand have been fired upon off of West Africa.

Like any other criminals, pirates take advantage of opportunity.  The worldwide global downturn left many nation-states cash strapped.  International flotillas from the West made the Indian Ocean more perilous for pirates, so they simply follow the advice of Wee Willie Keeler.  "Hit it where they ain't." 

"They ain't" in West Africa and other vulnerable areas, such as the Indonesian archipelago.

The Somali pirates themselves have become more sophisticated in choosing prey.  In the past several months, their attack to boarding ration has increased significantly.

Levin argues that western warships come with huge operational pricetags.  Warships cost hundreds of millions of dollars, using up tons of fuel, patrol sea lanes.  National taxpayers waste too much money on the maritime equivalent of an M1 Abrams patrolling a bad neighborhood.

In contrast, Levin says that a private firm could patrol the same areas and respond more flexibly and effectively for $35,000 or so per day. 

One obstacle to using private firms to police the oceans is international law.  Although this remains murky on the issue, American law is clear.  Congress has constitutional authority to issue "letters of marque and reprisal" under Article I Section 8 Clause 11.  Foreign Policy recently advocated their use against China in cyberspace.  Private anti-piracy forces would harken back to the more traditional sense of the term. 

Another option for Western forces would be to establish a more flexible command with low tech weaponry.  For the cost of deploying a handful of frigates, the Navy could build World War II type PT boats, such as the one commanded by John F. Kennedy in the Pacific.  Armed with several .50 calibre machine guns and torpedoes, they would be less expensive to run, but more numerous and deadly to pirates.  The World War II tactic of hiding small warships inside of dummy freighters to lure attacks would also be effective here.  

Stopping piracy requires executing a simple equation.  Make the cost of "doing business" higher than the rewards of success.  Along the way, American strategists need to also find solutions that are cost-effective, yet still accomplish the mission and keep professional soldiers as safe as possible. 

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